I’m not one for cream on my Christmas pudding, it just has to be custard or ice cream and so what I’m really admitting to is a love for vanilla. Vanilla is the quietest spice at Christmas but there is so much more to vanilla than merely two scoops of icecream.
Natural vanilla is the fruit and seeds from a tropical, climbing orchid. There are other edible orchids (e.g. Dendrobium flowers and salep tubers), but it is certainly the most commonly used in food preparation. Some orchids are harvested from the wild to eat (such as Orchis mascula and O. militaris for salep), but given the demand, luckily this isn’t true for vanilla. There are over 100 orchid species in the Vanilla genus, but the most commonly cultivated species is Vanilla planifolia (more commonly known as Madagascan or Bourbon vanilla).
V. planifolia is native to Central and South America, and was first domesticated by the Totonac people of east Mexico, who used it exclusively until Aztec conquerors demanded vanilla as a tribute. The Spanish conquistador Cortez brought vanilla to Europe, where initially it was only mixed with cocoa and drunk, but later was used in other deserts. Vanilla was very expensive during the 16th to 19th century, as Mexico had a monopoly on this luxurious spice. The reason for this was discovered by the French botanist Charles Morren who in 1836 observed Melipona bees pollinating the flowers, which have a range limited to Mexico. Therefore, the only way to cultivate vanilla elsewhere is by hand pollination. Morren experimented with hand pollination methods but the method still used today was devised by Edmond Albius, aged 12, in 1841. A twig or blade of grass is used to lift the rostellum, separating the stigma and anthers, and the thumb is used to transfer pollen to the stigma. The process is further complicated by each infloresence only lasting for 24 hours.
Vanilla is labour intensive to produce, so natural vanilla is still the second most expensive spice (after saffron). Albius’ method allowed vanilla to be grown in what is now Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros Islands, which today account for 80% of the world’s vanilla pod production. You can find more about vanilla from the National Geographic website and an interesting site dedicated to vanilla.
For centuries vanilla has been used to flavour our foods, drinks and even pharmaceuticals but the main extract from the vanilla pod, vanillin, wasn’t isolated until 1858. Nicolas- Theordore Gobley obtained it by completely evaporating the vanilla extract and then recrystallizing it from hot water in order to separate it out from all of the several hundred other components found in the extract. Since the 1870’s companies have competed to produce synthetic vanillin from clove oil, lignin, guaiacol and glyoxylic acid. More recently, Rhodia has marketed a “natural” vanillin which is prepared using microorganisms. You can find out more about the structure of vanillin here.
Around 2% of the dry weight of the cured pods of Vanilla planifolia is vanillin. When the seed pods are first harvested, they are green and lack the vanilla flavour and aroma. Curing of the vanilla pods consists of just four steps. “Killing” often entails the pods being frozen or blanched in hot water to initiate reactions which develop the aroma. Sweating involves stacking pods within layers of wool for 7-10 days in a very hot (45–65 °C) and humid environment. Drying occurs to reduce the remaining moisture content to around 25% in order to prevent rotting. Conditioning is the final step where the pods are left in the box for several months before being graded. It is after this curing process that vanillin develops the aroma and flavour that we have come to know and love.
To get into the Christmas spirit I’ve found some very Christmassy treats for you to make at home yourself: